Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, takes questions from the media during a news conference in Palm Beach, Fla., on the night of the Super Tuesday primary elections. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Every time I think about Donald Trump I want to either laugh or cry. Laugh, because the idea that anyone can take his candidacy (and hair) seriously is a joke. Cry, because plenty of people are indeed envisioning a President Trump. As results roll in from Super Tuesday primary races, this tension between hilarity and fear has grown dire.

This latest example will suffice to illustrate the danger Trump represents. On Sunday, CNN’s “The Lead” host Jake Tapper asked Trump if he would disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who recently endorsed him. Trump repeatedly stated that he knew nothing about Duke or the KKK and that he would need to do “more research” on them before commenting.

Trump has not felt the need to do “more research” on Mexican-Americans, about whom he said, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Nor has he had to “research” members of the Muslim community he insulted by citing the dubious legend of a U.S. general who executed Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

Trump later blamed a bad earpiece for his response, and said, “I don’t mind disavowing David Duke.” But the damage was done.

At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim, Calif., over the weekend, not far from Disneyland, a violent confrontation took place, reminiscent of an older era. Klansmen stabbed several counterprotesters—most, if not all of them, people of color—after a brawl broke out. Interestingly, police released all the Klansmen taken into custody, maintaining that the stabbings were done in self-defense.

Trump’s claims that he knows little of Duke or the KKK are facetious at best. Not only has he spoken about Duke previously, but rumors swirl around his father’s connection to white supremacist groups. A 1927 New York Times article, unearthed by BoingBoing, found that a Fred Trump—who shared the same name and address as Trump’s father—was arrested at a brawl between the KKK and police officers. He was represented by the same lawyers who defended Klan members and was later released without charges. Candidate Trump has vehemently denied his father was a member of the Klan.

Regardless, Duke’s exhortation to white voters is telling. On his radio show he declared, “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your heritage.”

Plenty of white Americans, even young ones, seem to be taking this seriously. At a recent high school basketball game in Iowa, students from the mostly white school’s team taunted the largely Latino team from an opposing school with chants of “Trump.” The incident is not an isolated one. At another basketball game, between two Catholic schools in Indiana, white students carried a sign bearing a picture of Trump and chanted “Build a Wall” at supporters of their Latino-dominated rival team.

Trump might be able to claim distance from these incidents, because he was not directly involved. But every Trump campaign rally these days provides evidence of intolerance and racial animus. Progressive activists, often people of color, have made it a practice to show up at his events and stand quietly, holding signs or sometimes just wearing ethnic clothing. They have been kicked out roughly, or even beaten. A young black woman in Louisville, Ky., recently was beaten and shoved repeatedly by white male Trump supporters as she tried to leave a rally. Thirty black students at Valdosta State University in Georgia were kicked out of an event on their own campus, apparently at Trump’s behest. Trump has condoned this dangerously fascistic behavior, either through silence or overt support.

A video compilation by television host Jimmy Kimmel of the numerous times Trump has demanded that people be thrown out of his rallies perfectly exemplifies his overall attitude toward nonwhites, and “get ’em outta here” is his favorite call to action. That call is squarely aimed at us: blacks, Muslims, Latinos, Asians and anyone else who falls into the category of “other.”

Clad in his armor of hate, Trump is handily winning state after state in the Republican primary election, prompting many of us to wonder how he can possibly be so popular. A country where a black man won the popular vote two elections in a row now has enough voters either embracing Trump’s racism or so willing to look past it that he is likely to snag the Republican Party’s nomination. It seems unreal.

The GOP does not seem to have much of a game plan to stop Trump, despite repeated and vocal denunciations by some high-profile politicians. While one wing of the party is declaring #NeverTrump on social media, others, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are rewarding Trump with endorsements. Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota went as far as saying that he was OK with a KKK-condoning President Trump over a Democrat. Several top Republicans have said they would support whoever becomes the GOP nominee, even Trump.

How to explain Trump’s rise? In some ways, his popularity is a predictable end result of the politics of resentment that the Republican Party has stoked for years in order to win votes. Establishment Republicans are not radical enough for their own base anymore. But Trump is. While it is tempting to dismiss large swaths of the U.S. as simply racist, xenophobic white supremacists or Christian fundamentalists who believe in ending government welfare, it is a bit more complex than that.

Libyan Twitter user Hend Amry posted an eloquent analogy: “If you’re an American confusedly watching the darkest forces of ur nation rally behind a demagogue-maybe u can understand the Mid East now.” She added, “[N]ow imagine if you KNOW it’s because of political frustration, economic stagnation, & social decay but everyone kept calling it jihad. …”Trump’s rise is driven largely by white voters who are angry about their inability to flourish economically despite their racial privilege. Like most Americans, they are struggling financially, and Wall Street’s revival has simply not trickled down to them. As a Los Angeles Times reporter found in South Carolina, many Trump supporters “don’t hate the government. In fact, they rely on it.” One 23-year-old told the reporter, “Being middle class is the worst to be. … You’re not low enough to get anything [in government assistance], but you’re not high enough to have what you need.”

It is a sentiment many middle-class Americans are familiar with. But white Americans who have consumed Fox News coverage for years see themselves as deserving of government assistance and nonwhites as undeserving. Hence the popularity of ideas such as building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and deporting immigrants while keeping Social Security intact.

The GOP establishment has built up ideas about cutting government spending to individuals while boosting businesses through claims (proved false time and again) that jobs and other benefits trickle down to ordinary Americans. It has nurtured a large segment of the American population in this way, relying on social hot-button issues such as abortion to override personal economic hardship and to direct votes toward the party. But Republicans didn’t count on a Trump candidacy offering voters the demagoguery minus spending cuts. This is on them.

In many ways, Bernie Sanders is speaking to a similar set of ills (but centered on progressive values that are inclusive), which is why so many voters are finding themselves choosing between Trump and Sanders. It may seem unfathomable to a progressive Sanders supporter why someone would sway between two seemingly diametrically opposed candidates. After all, Trump is a rich fat cat, a 1 percenter who embodies the worst excesses of corrupt businessmen, while Sanders is a rough-edged, maverick, democratic socialist and independent senator who has amassed little personal wealth. The biggest difference (and there are many others) is that Trump offers resentful whites who are struggling financially a vision of restoring them to their “rightful place” at the top of the American totem pole. Demographic projections show that by 2044, whites will be a minority in the United States. But perhaps if Trump is president, that date will be indefinitely postponed—or so his supporters might imagine.

A choice between Sanders and Trump offers white voters the chance to choose inclusiveness over demagoguery in its most reductive terms. Indeed, progressive whites, in conjunction with voters of color (who tend to be progressive), already outnumber white swing voters. So it should not surprise us that in a Sanders-Trump matchup, Sanders would probably win. In fact, the latest CNN poll finds that “Sanders—who enjoys the most positive favorable rating of any presidential candidate in the field, according to the poll—tops all three Republicans [Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio] by wide margins.”

Yet the Democratic Party establishment has chosen to tilt toward Clinton, promising her the lion’s share of superdelegates. If Clinton wins the nomination based on her superdelegate count and then goes on to lose the White House to Trump or any of the other Republican candidates, then that’s on the Democratic Party.

Ultimately, the blame for the state of American electoral politics can be laid at the feet of both major parties. Most ordinary Americans are frustrated with the status quo, evidenced by the majority of voters who call themselves “independent.” It should not surprise leaders from either party that voters are rejecting establishment candidates. But given the perils of Trump’s politics, the stakes are higher than they have ever been.

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